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by Aubrey F. Melchert
My first encounter with the Tea Party was from hearing about it on the Bill Maher Show. Maher, though, insisted on referring to Tea Party members as “Tea Baggers” -- which I later discovered was a slang term for a sex act.
My next encounter with the Tea Party was through Michelle Bachmann's references to it. Her radical and somewhat inflammatory fundamentalist views were familiar to me; while I no longer shared those views, I understood everything that she was saying, and respected her sincerity.
It wasn't until the combined events of a hurricane and an earthquake along the eastern seaboard in 2011, that I realized that the progressive sector of the political spectrum, and perhaps most of America as well, do not truly understand the constituency of the Tea Party.
I remember turning to my wife and saying" " I bet someone from the Tea Party attributes these disasters to being God's warning." No sooner had I said that, than Michelle Bachmann on the news making the following statement in Sarasota, Florida:
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'"
We no longer need to worry about Michelle Bachmann as a presidential candidate; but Santorum shared many of her views, as will other candidates. How is it that I understand people like Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum, and get their mass appeal?
It's because for 20 years, as a Christian fundamentalist, my core focus and my primary concern was in regards to my eternal salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ. While I no longer identify myself as a fundamentalist in this way, I still retain an insight into the dedication that a fundamentalist worldview demands, and I understand the appeal that it holds for so many.
Why is it that otherwise completely rational and sane human beings would be drawn to such radical views as Bachmann's and Santorum's?
The answer is simple: when people are afraid, they look outside of themselves for the solutions to problems that, I would argue now, can only be found within themselves. Statements such as those made by Bachmann following the earthquake and hurricane are like a hidden code, understood by those of us initiated into fundamentalism. Her message: God is in charge of seemingly random, chaotic events.
Recently on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Rachel Maddow -- someone whom I otherwise admire -- showed the hubris typical of progressives, when she said that she hoped that Rick Santorum would last until the bitter end and be the nominee to be torn apart by a President Obama's debating prowess. This hubris is based upon upon her misunderstanding of Rick Santorum's extreme right-wing positions relating to things like abortion, birth control, and Social Security. What Maddow and others fail to understand is that when fundamentalist Christians, and even more mainstream Christians, are afraid -- and when that fear is channelled into a narrative of End Times -- their political responses will not be predictable in the way she imagines. They will not be responding to rational point-scoring in a debate. The only proper response of a believer to this fear narrative, regarding the "End Times", as taught by fundamentalism, is complete obedience to God's authority.
To understand someone driven by Christian fundamentalism, one needs to understand the bigger worldview: all things here in earth are merely temporary, anddestined for eventual destruction and then for God's renewal.
The implications of this worldview are plain: concepts such as the conservation of natural environments and natural resources are completely unnecessary: these resources were meant to be expended -- and what will not be used up by man, will be destroyed in any event in the fire of the Lord's return. In large measure, the vast majority of fundamentalists believe that this world has no more permanence than a Dixie Cup. (This view of the temporary nature of this world is shared by fundamentalist Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians.) To a fundamentalist this is not fiction, this is fact.
The last element that one needs to understand is the ugly core of fundamentalism, that of guilt. Guilt is wrought through association in or with sin; sin being any thing or activity that would result in your spiritual separation from Divinity, the second death. This trigger point of guilt was actually the undercurrent of Michelle Bachmann's address in Florida, given by way of Divine warning. However personalities like Glenn Beck thankfully express the conservative worldview in clear and plain English that even an intelligent Progressive Liberal could understand, even if they can't believe it.
"How many warnings do you think you’re going to get, and how many warnings do you deserve? This hurricane that is coming through the East Coast ... it is God reminding you — as was the earthquake last week — it’s God reminding you you’re not in control."
Granted this is Glenn Beck, and he is a complete lunatic, however I guarantee you that the sentiment of this message was broadcast across pulpits all over the East Coast following the hurricane and the earthquake. It's a terrible and sad statement to realize that a natural disaster can be leveraged against the hearts and minds of frightened people. And yet this is not only the stock in trade, but the divinely appointed duty of the ministers, prophets, and priests of any religion that teaches that peace is wrought through obedience to God's commandments, and suffering and calamity happens as a result of sin.
In an environment consisting of the worst financial crisis America has seen since the great depression, disasters and calamities happening all over the planet, and wars raging, this is precisely the stuff that of which in end times narrative is made. All that is required to complete the fundamentalist equation is a causal force they can be associated with the moral decline of society. Together in the mind of fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the only solution to rectify this is the elimination of any and all activities resulting in a violation of God's law, the elimination of sin. This usually begins with identifying certain groups or activities as standing in violation of God's law. These groups and activities then become the underpinning causal force behind God's wrath and therefore can be directly linked to the continued suffering of mankind.
What does this mean to anyone who is not familiar with fundamentalist rhetoric? History is replete with examples of what can happen when fundamentalist rhetoric is married with political ambition. The fact that the entire GOP line up, are are falling in line with the tea party fundamentalist narrative (whether pandering or true believers it doesn't matter) should be a red flag to anyone of a more moderate or liberal temperament. Because it is not just money that is moving the Tea Party, it's true belief in what is being preached. And while it was expected that Iowa voters would use their head instead of their heart when caucusing, the fact that Rick Santorum did so well there and continues to do well in the polls elsewhere is an indication that his message is hitting the hearts of more than just a few conservative fundamentalist Republicans.
What most liberals and moderates do not understand, but what is been clearly demonstrated by Tea Party members within Congress, is that these people do not play by everyone else's rules. And when people like Eric Cantor drive home extreme right wing conservative views, and is uncompromising in every aspect, it's because being uncompromising is a key tenant of fundamentalist belief.
Until progressives and liberals understand the complexity and sincerity of fundamentalist belief, until they understand the transitory nature of their worldview, they will continue to be taken by surprise and they will continue to be broken upon the implacable bulwark of their faith.
:: photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue via Creative Commons license ::
Aubrey F. Melchert is the father of three incredible children - now adults - and married for 25 years, his background and education are as diverse and eclectic as his tastes.